It’s an unavoidable truth that dealing with toxic supervisors is a depressingly common feature of nonprofit life. There’s always too much work, never enough time or money, and the ever-present gaping maw of personnel management that chews up and spits out new recruits. A survey published in 2019 of 200 midsize to large nonprofits found that 78% rated compensation as a moderate or high concern, and two-thirds said staff retention and recruitment was a moderate to high challenge. Pair this with 70% of organizations reporting that the variability of funding is a top challenge, and noxious work environment by way of overbearing supervisor is likely, if not a certainty.
. . .
The first time I met my new boss Jackie, it was Halloween, and she was adorned in a bright yellow and orange business suit. Her accompanying cravat appeared starched and was purple with black bats. Her look was very Murphy-Brown-meets-Beetlejuice. She called me into her office.
“Since you’ll be working in our department now, I think we should get to know each other a bit,” Jackie said. She smiled at me across her desk, hands folded behind her keyboard. “I’ll start,” she said. “I grew up in a family with a lot of mental illness, especially my mother. She committed suicide 15 years ago today.”
“Oh,” I said, caught off guard. “I’m so sorry.” My background is in social work, so I’m used to hearing tough details about people’s lives, though usually not as ice breakers. A sense of unreality set in.
“Don’t be,” she said. “I hate it when people say stuff like that.” Which made sense: I didn’t know her, and certainly didn’t know her mother. She went on to tell me about other struggles, and how she had once been forced to see a therapist.
“I hated it,” she said. “Therapy is worthless.” I was pretty sure there was an angry glint in her eye.
“Things that help some people don’t necessarily help everyone,” I said, trying both to validate her and defend my background as a social worker. She either didn’t hear me or didn’t care. “Tell me about yourself,” she said, eyebrows arched and lips pursed.
“I… have a great partner,” I stammered. “We like hiking? And birding. We’re sort of… nerdy.” It was a weak response. She waved her hand at me dismissively. We jumped straight from that introduction to the policies (innumerable) and procedures (compulsory and rigid) in the new department I would be working in.
. . .
This introduction to Jackie happened when I was about six months into a three-year stint with a state-funded nonprofit in New England. It was a mid-sized organization that worked to provide interventions so that older adults and people with disabilities could live safely at home. I started off in a small department with a fellow social worker boss who not only made me feel welcome but assured me regularly that we were doing important work. Funding was better than at many places I’d worked previously, but true to the industry in general, we were still overburdened and underpaid. The paperwork grind was relentless, but the payoff of feeling like our work meant individuals were safer—and sometimes even a bit happier—made most of it feel worthwhile.
I’d been warned about Jackie and her department many times. “We call it The Farm over there,” one of the women in my department said, clucking her tongue. She described rows of soulless cubicles like that scene in the office building in Tron. There were strict regulations on decorations, and protocols for which outlet you had to plug your computer into, and which counter it had to sit on. Coworkers called it The Farm because “people get hired, used up, and burned out. YOU are what gets harvested over there.” So when I was abruptly notified that my position was being transferred to The Farm, I was more than a little apprehensive. I was filled with dread.
. . .
The agency with The Farm was not the first nonprofit I worked for. Fresh out of college I was part of a small team that started a nonprofit: a para-church organization that provided basic community interventions in a neighborhood that faced a plethora of social inequalities. As much as a secular nonprofit can fuck with your identity and sense of self-worth, throw the idea of a god into the mix, and things can get ugly fast.
My boss at that particular org was Caroline, a pristine Southern woman with big hair and signature bright lipstick. I led all fundraising (including my own miniscule salary, of course), and ran the programming, and organized volunteers, AND served as the community liaison. I was in my 20s, but had no life. I actually bragged about being married to my job.
Despite my dedication, the longer I worked for Caroline, the harder she was to please. I worked late, lived in shitty apartments with shittier roommates, and gave most weekends to my job, but was told I was not doing enough. Worse, I was not faithful enough.
Once, at a community-wide immunization fair, Caroline excitedly gushed about how, thanks to the Lord’s faithfulness, we might soon break ground on a community center (something we dreamed about but had made no concrete progress toward).
“Sorry, what—” I started to ask, straining to hear her over the fans and crowd and the tinny, popping drone of a local councilwoman using a microphone, while at the same time belatedly realizing what she had said.
“That’s the trouble with you: no faith,” Caroline hissed at me. The sinking feeling that I would never, ever be good enough settled one level deeper into my gut. “We’ll never get anything done with you here,” she snapped, then whipped around to pay attention to someone important.
. . .
I nearly worked myself into a deep state of unwellness at that first nonprofit. After my doctor insisted on a brief medical leave, I began figuring out self-care for the first time in my adult life. I started therapy, adopted a dog, and resigned. One major identity shift and a few odd jobs later, I found myself once again being pulled toward the nonprofit world.
. . .
The Farm lived up to the dark rumors I’d heard. Jackie would insist on eating lunch with her “team,” which meant we hunched over our paper bag lunches under fluorescent lights in near silence—or worse, forced joviality for 20 minutes. Getting back even a few minutes late from the 30-minute lunch meant a scolding from Jackie in her office, sitting in a chair some of us darkly referred to as “the crying place.” If team members who sat close to each other formed close bonds, seats or entire schedules would be reassigned. All of this was done in the name of efficiency—Jackie was the business manager hired to keep our do-gooder operation running in the black, no matter the personal cost to employees.
I quickly found ways to adapt to The Farm. I didn’t take lunch breaks or socialize anywhere Jackie might see. I would sneak work into agency-wide meetings – dreadful affairs that took up at least a full work day of each month and rarely accomplished much – or even home. I was cross-trained at almost all of the entry-level positions at our agency, which compounded my stress but also gave me a chance to work under supervisors other than Jackie: comparative bliss. A few months after moving to The Farm, my boss from my original department suggested me for a promotion. The new position was half-time, so I still put in hours at The Farm, but Jackie’s grip on me loosened.
Jackie wasn’t done, though. She made fun of my clothes, my jewelry, and my physique in team meetings. By no means was I her only target. A friend – I’ll call her Diana – was better at appeasing Jackie, and went out of her way to be friendly out of fear of losing her job. Jackie pressured her into going out with her in the evenings. Then she pressured her into going to a tattoo parlor with her. Then tried to pressure her into getting matching tattoos. When Diana refused, Jackie immediately stopped all friendly contact and started piling small, extra work assignments on her. Soon Diana was having panic attacks. Then her health started to suffer. I recognized the signs immediately.
“Girl, get out,” I said, peering at her over our second or third round of Sam Adams one day after work. “None of this is worth your health.” She sighed, looking downtrodden. Luckily for Diana, a position opened up in my original department, and she was able to transfer.
. . .
Despite everything I stuck with it until my partner’s job required a move across the country. Probably because if I wasn’t working for Jackie, it would be Caroline, or my boss from another nonprofit who threw things at employees and screamed during staff meetings… or any other unknown narcissistic, anal-retentive, middle-manager, efficiency-at-all-costs disciple.
A few months after we resettled on the West Coast, I heard that Jackie had been fired – but in our highly regulated agency, no one knew exactly why. Some late-night internet sleuthing tells me she was hired just a couple months later by another social services agency. I wonder if she still dabs her chin with that purple bat-bedazzled cravat after sampling another new hire’s tender soul.